Why African leaders must accept China’s billions with caution

The curious development about Kenya’s dalliance with China is the negative public sentiment, especially the apprehensive view that the Chinese are a threat to the economy. But as the tide turned against their seeming dominance and debt diplomacy, African leaders were in Beijing seeking more loans from China.

The story of China in Africa has been a tale of debt, big infrastructure projects, counterfeits, and inflated or over-priced goods.

Two months ago, The Standard revealed the shocking details of infringement of labour rights and a colonial streak in the way Chinese companies treated Kenyan workers.

And just this month, the Kenya Police raided the offices of China Global Television Network looking for illegal immigrants.

A few days later, a Chinese national was deported for racial insults on Kenyans and the President. It has been a diplomatic nightmare for Chinese officials in Nairobi.

Chinese companies are progressively gaining market share from their multinational rivals besides dominating investments and contracts worldwide.

Also, China has expanded its military activities, playing a more prominent role in UN peacekeeping operations as well expanding its bases in countries like Djibouti, deploying troops to Syria and claiming the South China Sea.

Unprofitable exports

Its unprofitable exports and low pricing of goods remind us that profits are not a central concern to the country beyond its apparent vision of global expansion and influence.

This same move has further heightened its tense relations with the US — virtually mirroring Cold War dynamics. Despite the fragile economic relations, China still generates more than $500 billion worth of commodity trade.

For this reason, some economists are skeptical of China’s intentions, citing a looming economic crisis or collapse if, for example, the US economy were to significantly drop.

Even so, this tension appears not to be a threat to African countries that have gone ahead to sign exploration contracts. These include Angola, Sudan, Kenya and Somalia.

Sino-African relations are, however, not a new phenomenon as we can trace - back to the 1950s - China’s bilateral agreement with a few African countries, including anti-apartheid support for South Africa.

China has openly backed the African Union’s plans to establish an office in Beijing. Interestingly, this comes after allegations of years of China’s spying on AU servers from its Chinese-built headquarters in Addis Ababa.

In Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Nigeria are among the countries benefiting from Chinese rail projects. However, despite these projects creating jobs in various African countries, they have also been flooded with Chinese workers.

Work ethics

Issues ranging from poor work ethics, unequal pay and inhumane treatment of locals by Chinese supervisors to flooding local markets with cheap and low-quality Chinese products have caused a disturbance in countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

African leaders should be wary of China’s expansion and its relatively profitless economic growth driven by its overwhelming domestic demand.

Thanks to the age of globalisation, the Chinese are now able to prey on the plight of corrupt developing countries that have lending policies full of loopholes, horrifying human rights records, incapacitated trade associations, fewer competitors, and riskier investment paths.

China even went the extra mile by maintaining its workers in West African countries while Western companies fled from Ebola.

Nevertheless, African leaders must look past this outward appearance of philanthropy to realise the real motives drawing China to Africa.

Perhaps it is time they finally understood China as a visionary country seeking to achieve projected economic power and political influence in the world’s lowest-income region, although it is also potentially the most prosperous continent.

Mr Weku is a Doctor of Liberal Studies student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas; [email protected]